Category: Theology

Can Superhero Films Help You Rethink Liturgy?

August 1st, 2011 in Pop Culture, Theology 8 comments

cinema-large

Summer heralds the release of superhero films that draw people from the heat of the day into heavily air-conditioned and darkened theatres.

Captain America, Green Lantern, Thor, and the X-Men are on display this summer, part of a regular summer pattern in recent years of special effects driven action spectacles. While the hero of the summer changes each year, the superhero blockbuster returns with a fresh face battling the next evil doer. Whoever the hero, we go to the cinema and let our imaginations run free.

Be intentional about your worship structure and space so the imagination is given every opportunity to flourish and engage with the liturgical life of your community.

The imaginative world of superhero films and the structure of the theatre shape a specific experience. Superhero movies offer a few important features that make them useful illustrations for liturgy. Liturgical experience and the experience of the cinema both invite the participant community to a realm of imagination that refigures the mundane experience outside of the constructed space.

The structure of the cinema and the imaginative world of the superhero film offer tools for new understandings of liturgy in your congregation.

The Structure of Cinema, Liturgy and the Summer

The summer offers times of intense heat and long days, and the movie theatre beckons as a respite from normal summer space. The individual theatres themselves have doors and curtains that you walk through, you enter into a dimly lit space, and find a seat. The ritual action of passing through a gate keeping figure, passing through a threshold, and entering into a new space sets the space of the theatre apart from where you came.

The altered space of the theatre combined with the uncanny valley of the superhero develops a sense of mystery and imagination in the viewer, leading to an experience that reframes their return to ordinary space.

Theatres often are heavily air conditioned, cooling you from the summer heat, another sign that this space is not like the space from where you came. The screen is large, much larger than even the largest plasma televisions at home, with sound systems that immerse you in an experience you cannot find in daily living. The architecture of the space enhances your disposition and expectation that you will soon have an experience.

Like the cinema, the sanctuary houses the space for evoking the imagination of those present. The entryways are marked, specific attire is worn, and regular repeated rituals with seasonal variation mark the time of the year and the rhythm of worship life. The liturgical year has rhythms of offerings like film, with Christmas and Easter marking highly dramatic times. The structure of the liturgical space represents a place set apart, with decorations and colors and seating unlike other spaces.

The Imaginative World of the Superhero Films

Theatres offer the same space for all movies, but superhero movies play on this space well. Superheroes live in the uncanny valley. They are largely normal humans with a small twist that makes them not quite human. Telepathy, control of magnetism, flight, super strength, speed, and endurance displayed by superheroes do not occur in the lives of moviegoers.

However, since they are just a step removed from humanity we can enter into their world and imagine what it would be like, how we would be if we had the same powers but the same often terrifying responsibilities and choices.

the realm of imagination is within us at all times, but the space of the theatre brings the imaginative world to life

The movie is an experience where imagination mixes with morality and excitement. For a time disbelief is suspended and good ultimately conquers evil, but not without a price and conflict. The altered space of the theatre combined with the uncanny valley of the superhero develops a sense of mystery and imagination in the viewer, leading to an experience that reframes the viewer’s return to ordinary space.

Making the Space

Gerard Loughlin writes on the space of the cinema in his provocatively titled text on theology and film, Alien Sex, where he likens the cinema to Plato’s cave.

Traditionally, philosophers have scorned the residents of the cave as a place of viewing the ghosts of ghosts. Plato would have us transcend the fantasy of the cave to find the true and the good.

Loughlin has a kinder reading of the cave.

For Loughlin, the cave is where dreams are projected. We enter the theatre cave conscious of the difference between the imaginative reality that the movie explores and the reality from which we enter. The realm of the imagination is no less real than the quotidian life outside of theatre, since the realm of imagination is within us at all times, but the space of the theatre brings the imaginative world to life.

Loughlin links the function of the cave in cinema to the function of the cave in the temple or church. In liturgical space, the imagination is free to project its dreams and allow the participants an experience of a specifically guided imaginative space. The imagination of participants in worship is guided through the music selection, prayer time, sacred texts and sacraments of word and communion.

When done well, liturgical space excites the imagination to change the very real character of the participant. The use of the imagination brings the participant to deeper levels of discipleship and self-understanding as a participant in the faith community. Done poorly, it shuts down the imagination as the boredom of the participant rises and her feelings of alienation from the community grow.

Rethinking Liturgical Space

In your congregation’s worship, what marks the change of space that separates the space from the rest of your congregation’s lives?

How have you prepared the sanctuary for the visual shift marking a separate and special event?

What rhythms of the year do you presently already have, and how can you work with them to establish a ritual pattern that provides different experiences of the faith journey for your congregation?

The world of imagination and the uncanny valley are important for liturgy. Often we make the world of scriptural texts a domestic adaptation of our own world. We forget the truly different context of the ancient near east with the powers of Rome, Babylon, and Egypt conquering Israel. The scriptural world is still made of people, still on the same earth. Yet is at times radically different from our contemporary context.

Be intentional about your worship structure and space so the imagination is given every opportunity to flourish and engage with the liturgical life of your community. Liturgy can bring participants into the world of faith, which is a different world from the contemporary context.

The community participates in stories we uplift as sacred in the past through scripture and in the present through witness and testimony. The flow of worship rises to specific climaxes such as the sermon or communion, and needs the rise and ebb of energy to touch the imagination and play out the drama of the scriptural world.

The vibrancy of the tradition is most fully present in the imagination of the congregation only once the true grandeur and difference of the scriptural world from our own is acknowledged. Your liturgy, based on imagining how you structure both the worship space and pattern of ritual helps let the imaginative world live in the minds of your congregation.

Andrew Tripp is a doctoral student in Practical Theology at Boston University, and studies how narratives are used and performed by communities. View more of his work on his Academia.edu page